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Reiss Nelson’s chance to challenge Nicolas Pepe

Reiss Nelson started Arsenal’s friendly win over Charlton on Saturday. With games coming thick and fast, this is his chance to challenge Nicolas Pepe.

When Mikel Arteta first arrived as Arsenal head coach, he made several telling and significant selection decisions. One of them was to start Reiss Nelson at right-wing after the young Hale End graduate had been left out in the cold for much of the season up until that point.

Prior to his starts against Bournemouth and Chelsea, Arteta’s first two games in charge, he had made just three league starts all season. Two of those came in the first two matches. The other was against Everton, Freddie Ljungberg’s last match in charge as caretaker boss and the first following Arteta’s official unveiling as the new head coach.

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After those two appearances, Nelson slipped out of the starting XI. Nicolas Pepe started at right-wing in a 2-1 win against Manchester United — he was excellent, ripping Luke Shaw over and over, scoring the opening goal. Nelson then suffered a hamstring injury in late January and did not return for more than a month. He started the FA Cup victory over Leeds United, then played one minute off the bench against Crystal Palace before not playing again for almost two months.

In that time, Pepe strengthened his grip on the starting role. He did not settle into life under Arteta seamlessly, but in his final three league starts, he scored once, assisted three others, and led Arsenal to eight goals. They had scored eight in their previous seven matches dating back to Arteta’s first in charge. Nelson was left on the outside looking in.

He did play the full 90 minutes against Portsmouth in the FA Cup. He was excellent, producing two moments of high-quality wing play to create both goals. He then played the final 21 minutes of a win over West Ham in the final match before play was suspended. Just as Nelson was recovering his fitness and preparing to put pressure on Pepe’s starting job, the rug was pulled from beneath his feet.

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Now, three months later, the Premier League is on the verge of restarting. Arsenal travel to Manchester City in a little over a week as they play their game-in-hand ahead of a full slate of matches in two weekends’ time. On Saturday, the Gunners hosted Charlton Athletic in a behind-closed-doors friendly as Arteta continues to prepare his team. Nelson, not Pepe, was handed the start.

Of course, this was a little friendly. Nelson’s starting means little, although the rest of the XI looked like the first-team XI bar central midfield. Nevertheless, with games coming thick and fast between now and the end of the season, Arteta will be forced to rotate through his squad. Should Arsenal beat Sheffield United in the FA Cup quarter-final, they will play a weekend-midweek-weekend schedule for six straight weeks. Nelson, then, will be given opportunities to play.

Next: Arsenal: 3 semi-meaningless takeaways from Charlton friendly

The young winger has waited patiently for a run of starts to prove what he is capable of. He has had to sit on his hands for much of his time in the first-team squad. But perhaps now, with plenty of games and the belief of his manager, he will finally get his chance. Nelson has the chance to challenge Pepe. Now, he just needs to take it.

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